Earlier this week, Rough Type posted this chart and the lit parts of the internet went up into the perennial debate over e vs paper.
And certainly it’s a pretty doomish looking chart. You see a peek of 252% growth in Q1 2010 and then you see that growth drop to 5% by Q1 2013. That is a precipitous decline.
But does it matter?
Here’s the thing, ebooks are a new technology. E-ink readers didn’t even exist prior to 2006. The Kindle wasn’t released in the USA (let alone late-adopting countries like Canada until 2007). And, of course, iPad came in 2010.
When a new technology (for that matter, when a new product at all) comes to market there are waves of purchasers. First we get early adopters who buy the product when its first being introduced. Then, as word gets around about the product it will go through a period of rapid growth. And then, after a while, the majority of the people who are going to get onboard with the product have done so.
This is the mature phase of a product lifecycle and it is perfectly normal. It was going to happen eventually. Basically what it means is that the existing readers who were going to adopt ebooks have done so. It doesn’t mean that they are buying fewer ebooks, just not more.
Eventually the product will decline, but a very rapid adoption doesn’t necessarily imply a rapid decline from maturity. Industrial printing, the key technology for mass-market print books, kicked off in the 1800s and was reaching maturity less than two decades after it really got going and, by worst case scenario, print books didn’t reach the decline phase of the market cycle until… well… about 2011, when the Borders bankruptcy shook the entire book industry.
That was nearly two centuries of maturity following two decades of growth.
So perhaps we can start worrying about ebooks in a few decades, when accelerating technological change produces a medium for mass market stories as transformative as ebooks were.
Until then, don’t sweat the fact that the ebook market has matured. It was going to happen eventually.